PHOENIX — The Arizona Corporation Commission on Wednesday voted to move forward with new rules to standardize when state-regulated utilities can disconnect electricity service during summer and winter weather.
The proposed rules would give utilities two options for disconnection prohibition:
- No shutoffs between June 1 and October 15 or,
- No shutoffs on days forecasted to be above 95 degrees and below 32 degrees
For the full breakdown on what happened in Wednesday's meeting, catch Courtney's report on ABC15 News at 6 p.m.
A third option, which utilities had historically used, would have allowed them to choose heat warnings from the National Weather Service as a determinate of when to stop disconnections, but was eliminated from consideration.
The decision not to use NWS heat warnings is significant because they are cumulatively issued for fewer days in the year than the other two options, according to Professor David Hondula with the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University.
“A typical year sees about two dozen days with heat warnings in effect, whereas the proposed rules would prohibit disconnections on more than 100 days each year, on average,” Hondula explained.
Additional proposed changes include:
- Electric customers would have to reach $300 arrearage before disconnection proceedings could begin; the threshold for gas customers would be $100
- Customers would be allowed one missed payment in a 12-month period without late fees; if a second payment is missed the utility and the customer must act in good faith to negotiate a payment plan
- Requiring electric companies to create a program that targets populations that are vulnerable to heat-illness
The rules passed 3-2 with Commission Chair Lea Marquez Peterson, a Republican, voting with Democrats Sandra Kennedy and Anna Tovar. Commissioners Jim O’Connor and Justin Olson, both Republican, voted against.
Consumer advocate Stacey Champion said the rules are a good start, but she does not think utilities should have a choice in which policy triggers the disconnection ban.
“I think the majority of them will probably stick with the June 1 to October 15 moratorium, especially given the fact that we’ve already had 95-plus degree days and it’s already April 15,” she said.
Another heavily debated item during the four-hour discussion was about how the utilities would handle customer debt that would be accrued, but not paid, and how much that would increase future rates for all customers.
The answer was unclear. When John Coffman with AARP noted that, in general, 98% of delinquent payments are ultimately collected, a representative from Tucson Electric Power countered that longer moratoriums on disconnections would likely result in more customer accounts in arrears and the outcomes would not truly be known for one to two years.
Champion, who pushed for a temperature-based threshold of 90 degrees told ABC15, an increase in rates is preferable to prevent deaths.
“We’re talking about pennies to ensure that people are kept alive,” Champion said. “If you’re dead you can’t even be worried about debt. So would you rather be dead? Or would you rather have some debt? And I think most people would say, ‘I’d rather have some debt.’”
The decision was the culmination of nearly two years of the Arizona Corporation Commission’s attempt to grapple with what to do after it was revealed that a Sun City West woman died of heat-related causes inside her home after Arizona Public Service disconnected her service on a 105-degree day in September 2018.
The rules would apply to investor-owned utilities, Arizona Public Service and Tucson Electric Power.
Salt River Project is not regulated by the Commission.
Before becoming permanent, the policies will go through a formal rule-making process where Commissioners indicated additional changes could be made. The process will include public hearings in the fall which will be held in Phoenix and Tucson, before a final vote of Commissioners.
Rules would not go into effect until at least 2022. Until then current emergency rules which prohibit disconnections between June 1 and October 15 remain in effect.